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Mike Cleary Upholds the Winning Tradition at Athletic Director Convention


Cleveland, OH – Hitting the sweet spot with both attendees and exhibitors is a great achievement for any trade show organizer, and Mike Cleary, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA), has been in that groove longer than most.

Cleary has been going strong since he became the first and so far only executive director of the NACDA. His first order of business in those heroic days in 1965 was the launch of the NACDA Annual Convention, which this year convenes at the Anaheim Marriott June 19-25.

“It has been smooth sailing,” said Cleary, who has kept his members and exhibitors satisfied by making the necessary tweaks as needed, but who has otherwise stuck to the same successful formula for some 45 years. “We have a template that seems to work,” he added.

An example of sticking with what works is the convention’s general services contractor. Cleary worked his way through college by as a laborer with Andrews Bartlett (AB). When he launched the NACDA Annual Convention, he hired his former employer Andrews Bartlett as the general service contractor. Toby Aaron, who was the AB account executive at the time, continues to work with Cleary and the convention as vice president of new business development for TradeshowLogistics. “I would venture to say this is the longest-running relationship between a show organizer and a contractor in the industry,” Aaron said. “I’m pushing for 50 years.”

Cleary said the long-term relationship has built a level of trust that makes his job easier.

Exclusive Club
Cleary said there are other factors that have made his job easier. He pointed out that the NACDA Annual Convention is the largest athletic trade show in the country, and there has been no significant drop-off of exhibitors during any of the recessions. The core membership of the NACDA is athletic directors and their staffs at universities and colleges of all sizes. They tend to be a well-traveled, tightly-knit community that enjoys networking at the annual convention. “It is their only opportunity to network at this level,” Cleary told Trade Show Executive. “The event gives young people in the organization a chance to put a face to the voice they have been talking to over the phone. They can discuss a job they are interested in, or at least pass out a business card.”

“We have a good number of repeat attendees,” Cleary said. “We’ll generally draw about 2,500 delegates and about 2,000 of them are repeat attendees.”

Some send their staff members to the sub-association meetings, which are smaller, specialized membership organizations that hold their annual meetings in conjunction with the NACDA Annual Convention. Groups include facility managers, compliance and business management experts, and junior college athletic directors. The co-located events may not attract the huge crowds seen at larger exhibitions, but they bring in quality buyers for exhibitors who sell everything used by athletic programs, from scoreboards to insurance.

The convention itself is low-key, with the exhibit hall open mainly in the late afternoon and early evening hours.

Members and Schools Pitch In
As with most conferences, the educational sessions are a critical selling point for the NACDA Annual Convention. And Cleary has a built-in edge with a selection committee of members who not only determine the topics of discussion but also use the prestige of their respective schools and sports teams to recruit experts in the field. “We determine what is timely and they select the topics,” Cleary said. “We then put the arm on the schools to go out and get us their best people to speak on those topics.”

Reaching out to alumni has also produced a very impressive roster of keynotes for a convention of 2,500 people. The 2009 keynote was Adm. Mike Mullen, a U.S. Naval Academy grad and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. NBC’s Tom Brokaw spoke in 2007, and Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, headlined in 2008. The 2010 lineup included Nike founder and president Phil Knight and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. Cleary told Trade Show Executive that the association has never had to pay a speaker fee to such respected alumni recruited by their alma maters.

It Ain’t Broke
College athletics is all about tradition even though the ivy-covered campuses also tend to be at the forefront of innovation. The NACDA isn’t on Facebook, but it conducts its convention registration online and has been dabbling in social media for the past six or seven years, Cleary said. Adding just enough of the new to season a tried-and-true recipe has kept the NACDA Annual Convention anything but passé.

In his four-decade career, Cleary also served as the first executive director of the Exhibition Services & Contractors Association.

Reach Mike Cleary at (440) 892-4000 or

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